Falls are a common cause of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) across the lifespan. A proposed but untested hypothesis is that neck muscle activation influences impact severity and risk for TBI during a fall. We conducted backward falling experiments to test whether activation of the neck flexor muscles facilitates the avoidance of head impact, and reduces impact velocity if the head contacts the ground. Young adults (n = 8) fell from standing onto a 30 cm thick gymnastics mat while wearing a helmet. Participants were instructed to fall backward and (a) prevent their head from impacting the mat (“no head impact” trials); (b) allow their head to impact the mat, but with minimal impact severity (“soft impact” trials); and (c) allow their head to impact the mat, while inhibiting efforts to reduce impact severity (“hard impact” trials).
Trial type associated with peak magnitude of electromyographic activity of the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles (p < 0.017), and with the vertical and horizontal velocity of the head at impact (p < 0.001). Peak SCM activations, expressed as percent maximal voluntary isometric contraction (%MVIC), averaged 75.3, 67.5, and 44.5%MVIC in “no head impact”, “soft impact”, and “hard impact” trials, respectively. When compared to “soft impact” trials, vertical impact velocities in “hard impact” trials averaged 87% greater (3.23 versus 1.73 m/s) and horizontal velocities averaged 83% greater (2.74 versus 1.50 m/s). For every 10% increase in SCM %MVIC, vertical impact velocity decreased 0.24 m/s and horizontal velocity decreased 0.22 m/s.
We conclude that SCM activation contributes to the prevention and modulation of head impact severity during backward falls.